Hating laundry is not rational, but I do. Laundry has never been easier; to give a serviceable performance requires minimal labor and even less skill. We have not only washers now but dryers, soaps that whiten whites and brighten brights, wardrobes of machine-washable clothes. According to the Census Bureau’s 2020 American Housing Survey, more than 85 percent of Americans can do it without leaving the house. Yet despite all of technology’s best efforts, the problem still exists. There is always more laundry.
This is not for lack of trying. We have been doing what is recognizable as modern laundry — using soap and water to make what was dirty clean — for 200 years now. We have outsourced it and insourced it and mechanized it and developed apps for it, but while we have made it easier, we have not made it less. Like so many basic functions of life maintenance — eating, showering, cleaning, sleeping — laundry has yet to be hacked out of existence. But what makes laundry special is that it has also not improved.
Laundry defies the rules of lifestyle innovation and the promises of capitalism. In the years after World War II, automatic washing machines and accompanying in-home dryers became suburban household staples, and laundry now looks more or less as it did then. It has not been elevated to the status of a wholesome “hobby” (cooking), nor has it been successfully captured by the wellness market (washing your face). Laundry is instead an intractable condition. And if we are in a multi-decade stalemate, the only option is to change ourselves.
It wasn’t always like this. There was a time before laundry, although it was less romantic than one might hope. Until the 19th century, most outerwear, made from wool, leather, or felt, couldn’t be washed, and while linen underlayers could, they often weren’t, explains Suellen Hoy in her history of cleanliness. It wasn’t until cotton became the fabric of our lives — in part because it was so easy to clean — that American women entered the era of perpetual washing.
“This development was no doubt viewed as an improvement by many people,” writes technology historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan in her landmark analysis More Work for Mother — one imagines it certainly improved how many people smelled — but it also introduced the nation’s women to yet another chore. Nineteenth-century laundry was performed and dreaded weekly. Historian Susan Strasser points to the diaries of one Nevada woman who, in 1867, called laundering “the Herculean task which women all dread” and “the great domestic dread of the household.”
The descriptions of this process defy nostalgia: Sort the clothes, and soak them overnight in separate tubs. In the morning, drain that water, and then pour “hot suds” over the “finest clothes.” Rub each item against a washboard. Wring out each item, and “rub soap on the most soiled spots, then cover them with water in the boiler on the stove and ‘boil them up.’” Repeat with plain water. Wring. Rinse with bluing (a trace of blue dye to restore whites to optimal whiteness). Wring. Dip items in need of starching in starch, and wring again. Hang dry. Start again. Generally, this would take place on Monday, conveniently freeing up Tuesday for intensive ironing.
Presumably, at least one 19th-century contrarian must have enjoyed this process — there is always one — but it was mostly loathed and whenever possible avoided. “From all available evidence — how-to manuals, budget studies of poor people’s households, diaries,” Strasser observes, “it appears that women jettisoned laundry, their most hated task, whenever they had any discretionary money at all.”
To know how a society feels about a task, you only have to look at who gets the honor of performing it. In the South, enslaved and then free Black women. In the North, often young, unmarried immigrants. Whenever possible, it was delegated to laundresses, or outsourced to commercial laundries, and by the end of the century, the majority of American households had at least some of their washing done by someone else.
There is an alternative version of history where laundry left the home and stayed out — most of us don’t mill our own flour, for example, or churn our butter, or bake our bread, and when we need or want new clothing, we buy it at the store. But commercial laundries peaked in the 1920s. Then laundry came crawling back, thanks to the rise of the electric washing machine. The promise of the electric washer was that it did the hard labor of scrubbing for you, although you’d still have to fill it, empty it, and wring out the wet wash.
The promise of the automatic washing machine, which first hit the market in the late 1930s, was that it did everything. But rather than cut down on laundry, that ease created more. “Modern labor-saving devices eliminated drudgery, not labor,” argues Cowan, noting that as laundry has gotten easier, our standards for cleanliness have only gone up. Because it is more manageable, you’re expected to do it all the time. “You are doing much more laundry than your grandmother did.”
“I always think about the change that came with the advent of electricity,” says Jessamyn Neuhaus, a history professor at SUNY Plattsburgh and the author of Housework and Housewives in Modern American Advertising: Married to the Mop. “Electricity could ease the burden of women keeping house, but also when they turned on those electric lights, a lot of people were like, ‘Shit, my house is so dirty.’” So it is with laundry: It is so easy now to turn a dial and toss in a capful of detergent that what excuse is there for stains?
As any number of advertisements will confirm, the answer is: none. There is no excuse, only danger, and for the better part of the past century, detergent brands have been busy warning potential customers about the perils of being inadequately clean. Advertisers did not invent these anxieties — they only seized upon them — but the result is real-time documentation of America’s social fears.
Early laundry ads make it very clear that laundry is the responsibility of the housewife, Neuhaus writes, and there are so many ways for her to fail. For example: hiring help. “Table linen can be hopelessly ruined by an incompetent laundress,” warned a Borax ad from the late 1800s. A 1918 ad for Lux suds urged women: “Don’t hate the laundress! She has no grudge against your filmy things. She doesn’t want to ruin them. She’s simply keeping on washing them in the only way she knows.” Laundry, the ads suggest, is too intimate to be outsourced, never mind the many years it had been. No one cares like you do. Good help is hard to find.
And there were racist health concerns. Just as white commercial laundry owners had attacked competing Chinese laundries for being, as one scholar puts it, “filthy places where various diseases were likely rampant,” some late-19th-century publicity campaigns suggested that laundry should not cross racial lines, says Emily Westkaemper, a professor at James Madison University focused on US women’s history.
It was a convenient anxiety. In post-Civil War Atlanta, for example, where Black women often took on washing work as an alternative to domestic servitude, “there would be publicity campaigns: If you’re sending your laundry out of the home, and these predominantly minority women are doing it, there are these supposed ‘health risks’ that might result in exposure to disease.” It was, Westkaemper points out, a concerted effort to deny African American women jobs that would give them autonomy, cloaked in the language of public health.
The more possible laundry was, the more it became necessary. Proper washing could fend off germs, protecting families from the contaminants of the outside world, but increasingly, at least based on the advertising, the threat was coming from within. “She has ‘IT’ — but not what you think,” sighs a 1933 Lux ad, explaining that, despite her natural beauty, “she” never gets a second dance and will likely die alone, on account of body odor. It was an act of love, the ads said, and specifically an act of maternal love. “My mommy does laundry one, two, three, four, a million times a week!” proclaims a 1958 commercial child, explaining her mother’s allegiance to Rinso Blue. The archetype persists. “The image of Mom taking care of her family still seems to be working,” Neuhaus says. “As a culture, we’ve kind of settled on that as our impossible-to-obtain ideal.”
Other vestiges of nuclear-era housework have been elevated to new and extremely photogenic heights. The reclaimed, not-your-grandma’s domesticity of the mid- to late aughts has been replaced by a steady stream of aspirational content about women organizing closets. The trouble with laundry, though, is that we never successfully figured out how to lose it in the first place. Domestic projects can become quaint hobbies only once they’re optional. Knitting is fun because you rarely have to do it. Many, if not most, home gardeners could alternatively buy basil at the grocery store. But in the case of laundry, there are no alternatives. Laundry is forever. “The fact is,” Neuhaus says, “we do have to wash our clothes.”
In the face of drudgery, there are generally two options: You can either overhaul the experience and remove the drudge, or you can rebrand it as an act of personal indulgence. In the first category: TaskRabbit (the drudge of chores); Instacart (the drudge of buying groceries); Seamless (the drudge of ordering takeout by speaking to another person); Blue Apron (the drudge of kitchen measurements); Billie (the drudge of remembering to buy and replace razors).
The second category is harder to define. It is organizing all your books by color. It is everything at the Container Store. It is Dyson vacuum cleaners, status dish soaps, and artisanal brooms. It is a never-ending roster of products that promise to transform the oppressive mundanity of personal maintenance into a minor luxury. It is the difference between washing your face and practicing a “skin care routine.”
In 2013, a laundry startup called Washio launched in San Francisco, the value proposition being that doing laundry is unpleasant, and wouldn’t it be nice to press some buttons on your phone to summon someone who could do it for you? Washio was not alone in its assessment: In major cities across the country, other VC-funded laundry startups — FlyCleaners, Brinkmat, Cleanly, and Rinse — were racing to dominate the techno-laundry market, like Uber but for dirty clothes. “When people in a privileged society look deep within themselves to find what is missing,” quipped Jessica Pressler in her profile of Washio, “a streamlined clothes-cleaning experience comes up a lot.” You might think this means that we could find it, but like reliable printers or consistently responsive Siri, it remains forever out of reach.
Washio failed. Then FlyCleaners laid off its staff. Cleanly merged with a boutique dry cleaner to “vertically integrate” but seems to be having some trouble lately keeping track of people’s clothes. The tenuous promise of laundry robots is yet unrealized. Laundry remains remarkably undisrupted.
Certainly, it is possible to outsource the misery of washing — it would arguably be more efficient — but in the United States, in practice, sending out our laundry simply isn’t something we do. (There are, of course, exceptions: the very wealthy, city dwellers devoted to their drop-off wash-and-folds.) For the most part, though, we are, in this one case, a DIY society.
If slick on-demand services cannot make laundry frictionless, then there is only one move left: to turn that friction into pleasure. The basic laundry process may not have changed much since the mass introduction of the automatic washer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t elevate the Laundry Experience. “The laundry room, once the dull afterthought of the home, has gone upstairs and upscale,” declared the Chicago Tribune in 2003. In fact, the pinnacle of laundry spaces were not “rooms” at all: “These days, think laundry ‘center’ or ‘family studio,’ the term Whirlpool favors for its clothes-care system, which includes a ‘sink spa,’ ‘ironing station,’ ‘drying cabinet’ and Personal Valet ‘clothes vitalizing’ system,” urged the Tribune. “Think fine, custom-built cabinetry to hold the laundry soap. Wait! Don’t think laundry soap at all: You’ll be wanting ‘Spa Treatment’ laundry detergents with aromatherapy scents, and don’t forget the $17.50 fabric softener from Williams-Sonoma or the $10 linen spray from Caldrea.”
According to Caldrea’s founder, a very stressed-out generation was discovering that, with the right pear-blossom-agave-scented products, laid out on gleaming granite countertops, the tedium of laundry could take on certain “meditative” qualities. What it offers goes beyond cleanliness: Luxury laundry wants to be a retreat from the chaos of the world.
Perhaps the biggest name in high-end laundry is the Laundress, which sells 85 hyper-specific cleaning products, packaged with understated, old-moneyed elegance. When, last year, the company was acquired by Unilever, co-founders Lindsey Boyd and Gwen Whiting were clear about the reason for their success. “We turn everyday chores into a luxurious experience,” Boyd told Forbes. “Our fundamental premise was that you don’t need to send your clothes to the dry cleaners,” Whiting explained in Fast Company. “We focused on creating different formulas for different types of fabric, which was different from many detergents that have a one-size-fits-all approach.” To maximize your laundering experience, you needed to spend more time on laundry, not less.
The Laundress has an eco-friendly product for every situation: There is a specialized delicates detergent, yes, but also a sport detergent, a denim wash, a wool and cashmere shampoo, a stain solution, a fabric conditioner, a bleach alternative, and an “aprés laundry cream” (for hands).
In one obvious sense, the luxification of laundry — elevated by becoming more time-consuming and expensive — is a sinister exercise in excess. “It’s all about how much money you have to spend on yourself and on your consumer goods,” Neuhaus notes, quite reasonably. But there is also something perversely radical — craven, perhaps, but also radical — about a $20 bottle of highly specialized detergent. It suggests that laundry, archetypical women’s work, underpaid and undervalued, is in fact a worthwhile way to spend your time.
I like this idea, in theory, and in practice, $20 is a lot and I still hate laundry. Here is my laundry experience: I gather my clothes and sort them. I put them in a bag. I take the bag to the laundromat, where I put the contents in high-powered machines. I add an unscented eco-detergent pod. I push buttons. I wait. I like to use this opportunity to stare blankly at my phone. Laundry requires so little, and I despise it so much. It is possible I might feel differently if I had my own in-home washer, as most Americans do, but then again, there is strong evidence I might not.
“It’s time-consuming, unceasing, and there is so very much that can go wrong,” wrote professional Clean Person Jolie Kerr at the New York Times. Lifehacker called it “the world’s most boring chore.” On Etsy, craft platform and societal mirror, there is a whole cottage industry of anti-laundry merch in bridesmaid font: “Laundry Sucks,” reads one sign, presumably meant for a laundry room. “Fluff, Fold, Fuck This.”
It is difficult to find reputable data on people’s least favorite chores, but according to a survey from a company selling “shelf liners,” Americans rank it somewhere above “organizing the garage” but below “pitching empty shampoo bottles.” “There’s no creative element to it whatsoever,” says Kate Haulman, an associate history professor at American University who studies gender history, affirming my feelings. It’s “invisible, until it’s not done,” at which point it becomes a moral failing. In the game of laundry, you can only lose.
In the interest of fair representation, we have to acknowledge that laundry enthusiasts do exist and walk among us. Moreover, it is possible that in some sense, they are right. “Everyone, no matter how rich or poor or domestically uninclined, can not only benefit from acquiring laundry skills and learning about fabrics but will also find considerable satisfaction in doing so,” writes Cheryl Mendelson in her staggeringly exhaustive treatise on the many nuances of laundering, 400 pages, titled, accurately, Laundry. To invest in laundering as a skill to be developed, rather than an ordeal to be tolerated with as little thought as possible, “helps to reawaken us to the part of the world that we experience most intimately.”
“I am not exaggerating when I say that I love taking care of my clothes,” says Elizabeth Cline, whose most recent book, The Conscious Closet, positions thoughtful laundering as one tenet of an ethical wardrobe. “I love figuring out how to remove a challenging stain. It’s satisfying to have that knowledge. It’s satisfying to understand fibers and clothing enough to be able to keep them going.” Treating laundry as an experience best forgotten immediately, like childbirth, is in her view to rob ourselves of “all of these incredibly gratifying points of connection to our clothes.”
Neither she nor Mendelson is arguing that we should be spending more time on laundry. We are spending so much time already! What they are instead prescribing is a fundamental shift in attitude: To embrace laundry requires finding pleasure in maintenance, to revel in the joy of keeping things exactly as they were.
I understand. I agree. It has yet to help. “Fluff, Fold, Fuck This,” I think, again. No matter what you do to laundry, some basic truths remain. “You’re still carting it around,” says Haulman. “You still have to fold it. It retains, I think, that vibe of drudgery.” Even the act of laundering creates laundry, if you wear clothes while you’re doing it. There is no single moment when all possible laundry is done.
The problem with modern laundry is not that it is taxing, physically, but that it is hopeless, existentially. It is a constant losing battle, you and your gross body versus the steady march of decay. You wear clothes, and then you wash them, and in the absolute best-case scenario, you manage to erase the evidence that you were ever there. It will work until it doesn’t. Eventually, through time or user error, the fabrics will disintegrate. Someday, somewhere, you will do your final load. But the laundry will continue. It always does.
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